By Xavier Bleuel–

The Louisville Cardinals’ defense has much to improve looking forward to in their last season in the Big East.

The Cardinal defense under-performed in 2012, finishing 49th in stopping the run, and in the year prior, dropped 39 spots from 10 in the country. The one bright spot in the defense was the secondary; the passing defense finished 16th in the country.

However, the defense more than made up for any shortcomings during the season with a dominating performance against Rutgers and against Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Defense this year has the depth that was lacking in previous years. The Cardinals have plenty of playmakers at each position. Here are a few players to look for in 2013.

Defensive line:
Marcus Smith: 6-3, 252, Senior. The quarterback-turned defensive end has grown exceptionally since his transition to the defensive line. Although he didn’t bring eye-popping numbers in the Sugar Bowl, he was all over the field, making Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel’s day a miserable one. He has all of the physical tools to become a dominate end. Expect him to have an outstanding year.

Deiontrez Mount: 6-5, 234, Junior. The always giddy Mount is the charismatic leader on the defensive line — he’s also every bit as affective on the field. He is the complete package at the defensive end. If needed, he can play outside linebacker as well. His length, speed and strength make him virtually unstoppable. Mount played in every game in 2013 and had 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 TFLs and a pass breakup.

BJ Dubose: 6-5, 273, Junior.  Some call him Louisville’s most athletic defensive end. Dubose had 15 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 1 pass breakup and a QB hit in 7 games during 2012. He was suspended in mid-season for disclosed reasons. Expect Dubose to return his junior year with something to prove to his teammates, coaches, and fans. U of L’s recently released depth chart listed Dubose at Defensive Tackle. It’s something to keep an eye on and he could remain on the outside when the fall comes around.

Lorenzo Mauldin: 6-4, 242, Junior. Lorenzo is a crowd favorite. The former tight end found a home as a full-time defensive end in 2012.  Mauldin had 22 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in 2012. Two games missed due to injury put the defensive line at a disadvantage after Dbose’s suspension.

Sheldon Rankins: 6-2, 287, Sophomore. Rankins came into Louisville as a defensive end. With his great strength and size, it was an easy decision for the coaching staff to move him to the interior. He had a productive season in 2012, playing in nine games, registering seven tackles and a sack in the Sugar Bowl.

Preston Brown: 6-2, 255, Senior.  As a junior, Brown led the Cards in tackles with 109 in 2012.  He played in all 13 games. Brown is the leader of the defense, starting as middle linebacker, the position characterized as the quarterback of the defense.

George Durant: 6-0, 235, Senior. Durant busted on the scene in the later stages of the 2011 season and followed up with a great 2012 campaign, playing in all 13 games and finishing sixth with tackles on the team. Work pays off.  Durant is currently Keith Brown’s backup but he will get adequate snaps on the field while competing with the sophomore linebacker.

Keith Brown: 6-1, 230, Sophomore. The true freshman came in and shined at each linebacker position in 2012. His ability to quickly adapt to the college level and lead a defensive is something that makes Card nation excited for in the years to come. The Army All-American played in 10 games —starting five of them —and finished fifth on the team in tackles with 57. He also added 2.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Brown was rewarded for his efforts on the field by being named to the Freshamn All-American team. He is the second player under Coach Strong to receive the honor; Teddy Bridgewater held the same title one year prior.

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said he will move Brown to outside linebacker to maximize the linebacker unit as a whole.

James Burgess: 6-0, 213, Sophomore. Like Brown, Burgess played significant minutes as a true freshman, filling in for departed senior Daniel Brown. Burgess played in 10 games and had 28 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 INTs and a forced fumble.

Nick Dawson: 6-3, 250, Red-shirt freshman. Dawson came to Louisville with Keith Brown as Army All-Americans. Unfortunately, Dawson was red-shirted to deal with a family death. The former high school standout will come into this season pushing to start.

With Keith Brown, James Burgess, and Nick Dawson, the Cardinals will be set in the linebacker position for years to come.

Terrell Floyd: 5-10, 199, Junior. The junior out of Fort Pierce, Fla. made big play-after-big play for the Cardinals. His biggest play in the Sugar Bowl, intercepting Florida Gators QB Jeff Driskel on the opening play from scrimmage for a touchdown, swung all momentum in Louisville’s favor. Everyone remembers that play, but Floyd had made big plays throughout the year. Floyd interception of Rutgers QB Gary Nova on Rutgers final possession clinched the game.  He also sealed the game against Cincinnati in overtime with his interception of Bearcats QB Munchie Legaux. Floyd finished the season with 34 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, two sacks, three interceptions, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery in 2013.

Andrew Johnson: 5-9, 187, Junior. Opposite to Floyd on the starting depth chart, Johnson played in 12 games despite injury and registered 26 tackles. His physical prowess isn’t off the charts like his football IQ. He is always in the right position at the right time, a player with instincts, which makes him a great open-field tackler. For example, he had the game-winning deflection in the end zone against North Carolina. In 2011, his touchdown return off of a block punt against West Virginia was the biggest play of the game in the victory.

Stephan Robinson: 5-10, 170, Junior. Robinson is in his third year out of Central High School.  He is a solid corner with his off-the-charts speed and his physical play at the line of scrimmage.

Hakeem Smith: 6-1, 187, Senior. A three-time all Big-East performer, Smith is looking to close out his fourth career as starter as a national champion. He has recorded 245 career tackles.

Calvin Pryor: 6-2, 213, Junior. In his second year as a starter at the free safety position, Pryor became the defensive MVP in 2012. The hard-hitting sophomore finished with 100 tackles, five forced fumbles, five pass breakups, 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, a sack and a fumble recovery. He was also second Team All-Big East.

Jermaine Reeve. As a freshman last season, Reve made crucial plays all year, including knocking the ball from the Florida Gators, and future NFL tight-end Jordan Reed in the end zone, stopping any potential momentum. Reve finished with 32 tackles, a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss.

Gerod Holliman: 6-0, 208, Red-shirt freshman. A former U.S. Army All-American has all of the potential to be one of the better players on the defensive side of the ball. In limited action, Holliman played in just three games, registering two. Defensive Coordinator Vance Bedford recently mentioned Holliman as a red-shirt freshman. He will have to fight with Pryor,  Smith and Reve to see the field.

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Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal